Monday, October 29, 2007
Sunday, October 28, 2007
Thursday, October 25, 2007
For those who are interested, I just finished watching the 24-part lecture series by Misquoting Jesus author Bart Ehrman on the first three centuries of Christianity. Just a little background, I attended a Christian school from Kindergarten through the end of high school and studied everything from the traditional canon to fundamental apologetics, but the topics Professor Ehrman covers was only addressed tangentially and in less detail. It doesn't matter if you're a God-fearing believer, a snarky atheist or somewhere in between the origins of Christianity should be understood by everybody. Ehrman answers questions that are rarely even asked such as: Why did the early Christians want to adopt the Old Testament books as their own if they had no intention of keeping the law? Is modern Christianity based on the teachings of Jesus or Paul? What did Christianity have to offer pagans? Why is the New Testament written in Greek when Jesus spoke Aramaic? And how did the teachings of a poor, Jewish Carpenter spawn the greatest cultural force in Western Culture? Be warned the course is 12 hours, so it's mostly for the unemployed or the terminally friendless, but for those who make it to the end Ehrman's insights are thoroughly rewarding.
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Neuroscience and Moral Politics: Chomsky’s Intellectual Progeny
by Gary Olson
October 24th, 2007
Are humans “wired for empathy”? How does this affect what Chomsky calls the “manufacturing of consent”?
Throughout the world, teachers, sociologists, policymakers and parents are discovering that empathy may be the single most important quality that must be nurtured to give peace a fighting chance.
The official directives needn’t be explicit to be well understood: Do not let too much empathy move in unauthorized directions.
The nonprofit Edge Foundation recently asked some of the world’s most eminent scientists, “What are you optimistic about? Why?” In response, the prominent neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni cites the proliferating experimental work into the neural mechanisms that reveal how humans are “wired for empathy.”Iacoboni’s optimism is grounded in his belief that, with the popularization of scientific insights, these recent findings in neuroscience will seep into public awareness and “… this explicit level of understanding our empathic nature will at some point dissolve the massive belief systems that dominate our societies and that threaten to destroy us.” (Iacoboni, 2007, p. 14)
While there are reasons to remain skeptical (see below) about the progressive political implications flowing from this work, a body of impressive empirical evidence reveals that the roots of prosocial behavior, including moral sentiments such as empathy, precede the evolution of culture. This work sustains Noam Chomsky’s visionary writing about a human moral instinct, and his assertion that, while the principles of our moral nature have been poorly understood, “we can hardly doubt their existence or their central role in our intellectual and moral lives.” (Chomsky, 1971, n.p., 1988; 2005, p. 263)
In his influential book Mutual Aid (1972, p. 57; 1902), the Russian revolutionary anarchist, geographer, and naturalist Petr Kropotkin, maintained that “… under any circumstances sociability is the greatest advantage in the struggle for life. Those species which willingly abandon it are doomed to decay.” Species cooperation provided an evolutionary advantage, a “natural” strategy for survival.
While Kropotkin readily acknowledged the role of competition, he asserted that mutual aid was a “moral instinct” and “natural law.” Based on his extensive studies of the animal world, he believed that this predisposition toward helping one another—human sociality—was of “prehuman origin.” Killen and Cords, in a fittingly titled piece “Prince Kropotkin’s Ghost,” suggest that recent research in developmental psychology and primatology seems to vindicate Kropotkin’s century-old assertions (2002).
The emerging field of the neuroscience of empathy parallels investigations being undertaken in cognate fields. Some forty years ago the celebrated primatologist Jane Goodall observed and wrote about chimpanzee emotions, social relationships, and “chimp culture,” but experts remained skeptical. A decade ago, the famed primate scientist Frans B.M. de Waal (1996) wrote about the antecedents to morality in Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals, but scientific consensus remained elusive.
All that’s changed. As a recent editorial in the journal Nature (2007) put it, it’s now “unassailable fact” that human minds, including aspects of moral thought, are the product of evolution from earlier primates. According to de Waal, “You don’t hear any debate now.” In his more recent work, de Waal plausibly argues that human morality—including our capacity to empathize—is a natural outgrowth or inheritance of behavior from our closest evolutionary relatives.
Following Darwin, highly sophisticated studies by biologists Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson posit that large-scale cooperation within the human species—including with genetically unrelated individuals within a group—was favored by selection. (Hauser, 2006, p. 416) Evolution selected for the trait of empathy because there were survival benefits in coming to grips with others. In his book, People of the Lake (1978) the world-renowned paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey unequivocally declares, “We are human because our ancestors learned to share their food and their skills in an honored network of obligation.”
Studies have shown that empathy is present in very young children, even at eighteen months of age and possibly younger. In the primate world, Warneken and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute at Leipzig, Germany, recently found that chimps extend help to unrelated chimps and unfamiliar humans, even when inconvenienced and regardless of any expectation of reward. This suggests that empathy may lie behind this natural tendency to help and that it was a factor in the social life of the common ancestor to chimpanzees and humans at the split some six million years ago (New Scientist, 2007; Warneken and Tomasello, 2006). It’s now indisputable that we share moral faculties with other species (de Waal, 2006; Trivers, 1971; Katz, 2000; Gintis, 2005; Hauser, 2006; Bekoff, 2007; Pierce, 2007). Pierce notes that there are “countless anecdotal accounts of elephants showing empathy toward sick and dying animals, both kin and non-kin” (2007, p. 6). And recent research in Kenya has conclusively documented elephant’s open grieving/empathy for other dead elephants.
Mogil and his team at McGill University recently demonstrated that mice feel distress when they observe other mice experiencing pain. They tentatively concluded that the mice engaged visual cues to bring about this empathic response (Mogil, 2006; Ganguli, 2006). De Waal’s response to this study: “This is a highly significant finding and should open the eyes of people who think empathy is limited to our species.” (Carey, 2006)
Further, Grufman and other scientists at the National Institutes of Health have offered persuasive evidence that altruistic acts activate a primitive part of the brain, producing a pleasurable response (2007). And recent research by Koenigs and colleagues (2007) indicates that within the brain’s prefrontal cortex, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex or VMPC is required for emotions and moral judgment. Damage to the VMPC has been linked to psychopathic behavior. This led to the belief that as a rule, psychopaths do not experience empathy or remorse.
A study by Miller (2001) and colleagues of the brain disorder frontotemporal dementia (FTD) is also instructive. FTD attacks the frontal lobes and anterior temporal lobes, the site of one’s sense of self. One early symptom of FTD is the loss of empathy.
We know from neuroscientific empathy experiments that the same affective brain circuits are automatically mobilized upon feeling one’s own pain and the pain of others. Through brain imaging, we also know that separate neural processing regions then free up the capacity to take action. As Decety notes, empathy then allows us to “forge connections with people whose lives seem utterly alien from us” (Decety, 2006, p. 2). Where comparable experience is lacking, this “cognitive empathy” builds on the neural basis and allows one to “actively project oneself into the shoes of another person” by trying to imagine the other person’s situation (Preston, in press), Preston and de Waal (2002). Empathy is “other directed,” the recognition of the other’s humanity.
So where does this leave us? If morality is rooted in biology, in the raw material or building blocks for the evolution of its expression, we now have a pending fortuitous marriage of hard science and secular morality in the most profound sense. The technical details of the social neuroscientific analysis supporting these assertions lie outside this paper, but suffice it to say that progress is proceeding at an exponential pace and the new discoveries are persuasive (Decety and Lamm, 2006; Lamm, 2007; Jackson, 2004 and 2006).
That said, one of the most vexing problems that remains to be explained is why so little progress has been made in extending this empathic orientation to distant lives, to those outside certain in-group moral circles. Given a world rife with overt and structural violence, one is forced to explain why our deep-seated moral intuition doesn’t produce a more ameliorating effect, a more peaceful world. Iacoboni suggests this disjuncture is explained by massive belief systems, including political and religious ones, operating on the reflective and deliberate level. These tend to override the automatic, pre-reflective, neurobiological traits that should bring people together.
Here a few cautionary notes are warranted. The first is that social context and triggering conditions are critical because, where there is conscious and massive elite manipulation, it becomes exceedingly difficult to get in touch with our moral faculties. Ervin Staub, a pioneering investigator in the field, acknowledges that even if empathy is rooted in nature, people will not act on it “… unless they have certain kinds of life experiences that shape their orientation toward other human beings and toward themselves (Staub, 2002, p. 222). As Jensen puts it, “The way we are educated and entertained keep us from knowing about or understanding the pain of others” (2002). Circumstances may preclude and overwhelm our perceptions, rendering us incapable of recognizing and giving expression to moral sentiments (Albert, n.d.; and also, Pinker, 2002). For example, the fear-mongering of artificially created scarcity may attenuate the empathic response. The limitation placed on exposure is another. As reported recently in the New York Times, the Pentagon imposes tight embedding restrictions on journalist’s ability to run photographs and other images of casualties in Iraq. Photographs of coffins returning to Dover Air Base in Delaware are simply forbidden. Memorial services for the fallen are also now prohibited even if the unit gives its approval.
The second cautionary note is Hauser’s (2006) observation that proximity was undoubtedly a factor in the expression of empathy. In our evolutionary past an attachment to the larger human family was virtually incomprehensible and, therefore, the emotional connection was lacking. Joshua Greene, a philosopher and neuroscientist, adds that “We evolved in a world where people in trouble right in front of you existed, so our emotions were tuned to them, whereas we didn’t face the other kind of situation.” He suggests that to extend this immediate emotion-linked morality—one based on fundamental brain circuits—to unseen victims requires paying less attention to intuition and more to the cognitive dimension. If this boundary isn’t contrived, it would seem, at a minimum, circumstantial and thus worthy of reassessing morality (Greene, 2007, n.p.). Given some of the positive dimensions of globalization, the potential for identifying with the “stranger” has never been more robust.
Finally, as Preston (2006-2007; and also, in press) suggests, risk and stress tend to suppress empathy whereas familiarity and similarity encourage the experience of natural, reflexive empathy. This formidable but not insurmountable challenge warrants further research into how this “out-group” identity is created and reinforced.
It may be helpful, as Halpern (1993, p. 169) suggests, to think of empathy as a sort of spark of natural curiosity, prompting a need for further understanding and deeper questioning. However, our understanding of how or whether political engagement follows remains in its infancy and demands further investigation.
Almost a century ago, Stein (1917) wrote about empathy as “the experience of foreign consciousness in general.” Salles’ film The Motorcycle Diaries addresses empathy, albeit indirectly. The film follows Ernesto Guevara de la Serna and his friend Alberto Granada on an eight-month trek across Argentina, Peru, Columbia, Chile and Venezuela.
When leaving his leafy, upper middle-class suburb (his father is an architect) in Buenos Aires in 1952, Guevara is 23 and a semester away from earning his medical degree. The young men embark on an adventure, a last fling before settling down to careers and lives of privilege. They are preoccupied with women, fun and adventure and certainly not seeking or expecting a life-transforming odyssey.
The film’s power is in its depiction of Guevara’s emerging political awareness that occurs as a consequence of unfiltered cumulative experiences. During their 8,000-mile journey, they encounter massive poverty, exploitation, and brutal working conditions, all consequences of an unjust international economic order. By the end, Guevara has turned away from being a doctor because medicine is limited to treating the symptoms of poverty. For him, revolution becomes the expression of empathy, the only effective way to address suffering’s root causes. This requires melding the cognitive component of empathy with engagement, with resistance against asymmetrical power, always an inherently political act. Otherwise, empathy has no meaning. (This roughly parallels the political practice of brahma-viharas by engaged Buddhists.) In his own oft-quoted words (not included in the film), Guevara stated that, “The true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love.”
Paul Farmer, the contemporary medical anthropologist, infectious-disease specialist and international public health activist, has adopted different tactics, but his diagnosis of the “pathologies of power” is remarkably similar to Guevara. He also writes approvingly of Cuba’s health programs, comparing them with his long work experience in Haiti. Both individuals were motivated early on by the belief that artificial epidemics have their origin in unjust socioeconomic structures, hence the need for social medicine, a “politics as medicine on a grand scale.” Both exemplify exceptional social outliers of engaged empathy and the interplay of affective, cognitive and moral components. For Farmer’s radical critique of structural violence and the connections between disease and social inequality, see (Farmer, 2003; Kidder, 2003). Again, it remains to be explained why there is such a paucity of real world examples of empathic behavior? Why is U.S. culture characterized by a massive empathy deficit of almost pathological proportions? And what might be reasonably expected from a wider public understanding of the nature of empathy?
Hauser posits a “universal moral grammar,” hard-wired into our neural circuits via evolution. This neural machinery precedes conscious decisions in life-and-death situations, however, we observe “nurture entering the picture to set the parameters and guide us toward the acquisition of particular moral systems.” At other points, he suggests that environmental factors can push individuals toward defective moral reasoning, and the various outcomes for a given local culture are seemingly limitless. (Hauser, 2006) For me, this discussion of cultural variation fails to give sufficient attention to the socioeconomic variables responsible for shaping the culture.
“It all has to do with the quality of justice and the availability of opportunity.” (2006, p. 151). Earlier, Goldschmidt (1999, n.p.) argued that, “Culturally derived motives may replace, supplement or override genetically programmed behavior.”
Cultures are rarely neutral, innocent phenomena but are consciously set up to reward some people and penalize others. As Parenti (2006) forcefully asserts, certain aspects of culture can function as instruments of social power and social domination through ideological indoctrination. Culture is part and parcel of political struggle, and studying culture can reveal how power is exercised and on whose behalf.
Cohen and Rogers, in parsing Chomsky’s critique of elites, note that “Once an unjust order exists, those benefiting from it have both an interest in maintaining it and, by virtue of their social advantages, the power to do so.” (Cohen, 1991, p. 17) (For a concise but not uncritical treatment of Chomsky’s social and ethical views, see Cohen, 1991.) Clearly, the vaunted human capacity for verbal communication cuts both ways. In the wrong hands, this capacity is often abused by consciously quelling the empathic response. When de Waal writes, “Animals are no moral philosophers,” I’m left to wonder if he isn’t favoring the former in this comparison. (de Waal, 1996b, n.p.)
One of the methods employed within capitalist democracies is Chomsky’s and Herman’s “manufacture of consent,” a form of highly sophisticated thought control. Potentially active citizens must be “distracted from their real interests and deliberately confused about the way the world works.” (Cohen, 1991, p. 7; Chomsky, 1988)
For this essay, and following Chomsky, I’m arguing that the human mind is the primary target of this perverse “nurture” or propaganda, in part because exposure to certain new truths about empathy—hard evidence about our innate moral nature—poses a direct threat to elite interests. There’s no ghost in the machine, but the capitalist machine attempts to keep people in line with an ideological ghost, the notion of a self constructed on market values. But “. . . if no one saw himself or herself as capitalism needs them to do, their own self-respect would bar the system from exploiting and manipulating them.” (Kelleher, 2007) That is, given the apparent universality of this biological predisposition toward empathy, we have a potent scientific baseline upon which to launch further critiques of elite manipulation, this cultivation of callousness.
First, the evolutionary and biological origins of empathy contribute hard empirical evidence—not wishful thinking or even logical inference—on behalf of a case for organizing vastly better societies.
In that vein, this new research is entirely consistent with work on the nature of authentic love and the concrete expression of that love in the form of care, effort, responsibility, courage and respect. As Eagleton reminds us, if others are also engaging in this behavior, “. . . the result is a form of reciprocal service which provides the context for each self to flourish. The traditional name for this reciprocity is love.” Because reciprocity mandates equality and an end to exploitation and oppression, it follows that “a just, compassionate treatment of other people is on the grand scale of things one of the conditions for one’s own thriving.” And as social animals, when we act in this way we are realizing our natures “at their finest.” (2007, pp. 170, 159-160, and 173) Again, the political question remains that of realizing a form of global environment that enhances the opportunity for our nature to flourish.
I’ve noted elsewhere, Fromm’s classic book The Art of Loving is a blistering indictment of the social and economic forces that deny us life’s most rewarding experience and “the only satisfying answer to the problem of human existence.” For Fromm, grasping how society shapes our human instincts, hence our behavior, is in turn the key to understanding why “love thy neighbor,” the love of the stranger, is so elusive in modern society.
The global capitalist culture with its premium on accumulation and profits not only devalues an empathic disposition but produces a stunted character in which everything is transformed into a commodity, not only things, but individuals themselves. The very capacity to practice empathy (love) is subordinated to our state religion of the market in which each person seeks advantage in an alienating and endless commodity-greedy competition.
Over five decades ago, Fromm persuasively argued that “The principles of capitalist society and the principles of love are incompatible.” (Fromm, 1956, p. 110). Any honest person knows that the dominant features of capitalist society tend to produce individuals who are estranged from themselves, crippled personalities robbed of their humanity and in a constant struggle to express empathic love. Little wonder that Fromm believed radical changes in our social structure and economic institutions were needed if empathy/love is to be anything more than a rare individual achievement and a socially marginal phenomenon. He understood that only when the economic system serves women and men, rather than the opposite, will this be possible (Olson, 2006).
The dominant cultural narrative of hyper-individualism is challenged and the insidiously effective scapegoating of human nature that claims we are motivated by greedy, dog-eat-dog “individual self-interest is all” is undermined. From original sin to today’s “selfish gene,” certain interpretations of human nature have invariably functioned to retard class consciousness. These new research findings help to refute the allegation that people are naturally uncooperative, an argument frequently employed to intimidate and convince people that it’s futile to seek a better society for everyone. Stripped of yet another rationalization for empire, predatory behavior on behalf of the capitalist mode of production becomes ever more transparent. And learning about the conscious suppression of this essential core of our nature should beg additional troubling questions about the motives behind other elite-generated ideologies, from neo-liberalism to the “war on terror.”
Second, there are implications for students. Cultivating empathic engagement through education remains a poorly understood enterprise. College students, for example, may hear the ‘cry of the people’ but the moral sound waves are muted as they pass through a series of powerful cultural baffles. Williams (1986, p. 143) notes that “While they may be models of compassion and generosity to those in their immediate circles, many of our students today have a blind spot for their responsibilities in the socio-political order. In the traditional vocabulary they are strong on charity but weak on justice.”
Nussbaum (1997) defends American liberal education’s record at cultivating an empathic imagination. She claims that understanding the lives of strangers and achieving cosmopolitan global citizenship can be realized through the arts and literary humanities. There is little solid evidence to substantiate this optimism. My own take on empathy-enhancing practices within U.S. colleges and universities is considerably less sanguine. Nussbaum’s episodic examples of stepping into the mental shoes of other people are rarely accompanied by plausible answers as why these people may be lacking shoes—or decent jobs, minimum healthcare, and long-life expectancy. The space within educational settings has been egregiously underutilized, in part, because we don’t know enough about propitious interstices where critical pedagogy could make a difference. Arguably the most serious barrier is the cynical, even despairing doubt about the existence of a moral instinct for empathy. The new research puts this doubt to rest and rightly shifts the emphasis to strategies for cultivating empathy and identifying with “the other.” Joining the affective and cognitive dimensions of empathy may require risky forms of radical pedagogy (Olson, 2006, 2007; Gallo, 1989). Evidence produced from a game situation with medical students strongly hints that empathic responses can be significantly enhanced by increased knowledge about the specific needs of others—in this case, the elderly (Varkey, 2006). Presumably, limited prior experiences would affect one’s emotional response. Again, this is a political culture/information acquisition issue that demands further study.
Third, for many people the basic incompatibility between global capitalism and the lived expression of moral sentiments may become obvious for the first time. (Olson, 2006, 2005) For example, the failure to engage this moral sentiment has radical implications, not the least being consequences for the planet. Within the next 100 years, one-half of all species now living will be extinct. Great apes, polar bears, tigers and elephants are all on the road to extinction due to rapacious growth, habitat destruction, and poaching. These human activities, not random extinction, will be the undoing of millions of years of evolution (Purvis, 2000). As Leakey puts it, “Whatever way you look at it, we’re destroying the Earth at a rate comparable with the impact of a giant asteroid slamming into the planet…” And researchers at McGill University have shown that economic inequality is linked to high rates of biodiversity loss. The authors suggest that economic reforms may be the prerequisite to saving the richness of the ecosystem and urge that “… if we can learn to share the economic resources more fairly with fellow members of our own species, it may help to share ecological resources with our fellow species.” (Mikkelson, 2007, p. 5)
While one hesitates imputing too much transformative potential to this emotional capacity, there is nothing inconsistent about drawing more attention to inter-species empathy and eco-empathy. The latter may be essential for the protection of biotic communities. Decety and Lamm (2006, p. 4) remind us that “… one of the most striking aspects of human empathy is that it can be felt for virtually any target, even targets of a different species.”
This was foreshadowed at least fifty years ago when Paul Mattick, writing about Kropotkin’s notion of mutual aid, noted that “… For a long time, however, survival in the animal world has not depended upon the practice of either mutual aid or competition but has been determined by the decisions of men as to which species should live and thrive and which should be exterminated. … [W]herever man rules, the “laws of nature” with regard to animal life cease to exist.” This applies no less to humans and Mattick rightly observed that the demands of capital accumulation and capitalist social relations override and preclude mutual aid. As such, neuroscience findings are welcome and necessary but insufficient in themselves. For empathy to flourish requires the elimination of class relations (Mattick, 1956, pp. 2-3).
Fourth, equally alarming for elites, awareness of this reality contains the potential to encourage “destabilizing” but humanity-affirming cosmopolitan attitudes toward the faceless “other,” both here and abroad. In de Waal’s apt words, “Empathy can override every rule about how to treat others.” (de Waal, 2005, p. 9) Amin (2003), for example, proposes that the new Europe be reframed by an ethos of empathy and engagement with the stranger as its core value. The diminution of empathy within the culture reduces pro-social behavior and social cohesiveness. Given the dangerous centrifugal forces of ethno-nationalism and xenophobia, nothing less than this unifying motif will suffice, while providing space for a yet undefined Europe, a people to come.
Finally, as de Waal observes, “If we could manage to see people on other continents as part of us, drawing them into our circle of reciprocity and empathy, we would be building upon rather than going against our nature.” (de Waal, 2005, p. 9) An ethos of empathy is an essential part of what it means to be human and empathically impaired societies, societies that fail to gratify this need should be found wanting. We’ve been systematically denied a deeper and more fulfilling engagement with this moral sentiment. I would argue that the tremendous amount of deception and fraud expended on behalf of overriding empathy is a cause for hope and cautious optimism. Paradoxically, the relative absence of widespread empathic behavior is in fact a searing tribute to its potentially subversive power.
Is it too much to hope that we’re on the verge of discovering a scientifically based, Archimedean moral point from which to lever public discourse toward an appreciation of our true nature, which in turn might release powerful emancipatory forces?
A highly abbreviated version of this paper appeared at Zmag (5/20/07). Helpful comments were offered by N. Chomsky, D. Dunn, M. Iacoboni, K. Kelly, S. Preston and J. Wingard. Thanks, per usual, to M. Ortiz.
Gary Olson is Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science, Moravian College, Bethlehem, PA. He can be reached at: email@example.com. Read other articles by Gary.
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
Monday, October 22, 2007
Why NBC and the DNC Want Me Out of the Debate
In the past year, I have attended 11 national Democratic debates of which two were sponsored by corporate media giant NBC. However, last week, the network suddenly conjured up arbitrary polling and fundraising requirements specifically designed to exclude me. None of the previous debates I attended held such requirements.
When my staff called NBC directly to find out why I was now barred from attending, Chuck Todd, NBC news' political director, told us that there were three criteria we did not meet, namely that I had not campaigned in New Hampshire and/or Iowa at least 14 times in the past year, that I was not polling at 5% and that I hadn't raised $1 million.
It is abundantly clear that NBC just wants me out of the race. This was made evident by the fact that NBC did not even inform me of its arbitrary criteria before making the decision to stifle my campaign. NBC's Todd waited until 5 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 19, to inform my staff that I was not invited to the Oct. 30 debate at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
Since I announced my candidacy for the Democratic Nomination for President of the United States on April 17, 2006, I have certainly traveled to New Hampshire and Iowa at least 14 times. And, according to a recent CNN poll, I am tied with Joe Biden, Dennis Kucinich and Chris Dodd.
NBC claims I haven't raised enough money to qualify. I'm proud of the fact that I don't collect millions from special interests (or fugitives like Norman Hsu). The reason why Senator Hillary Clinton seems to have a fundraising scandal every month is because money has corrupted our democracy. By stifling my voice on the basis of fundraising dollars, NBC is reinforcing the power of money over our national political discussion and our freedom.
But why has NBC suddenly come up with "requirements" designed to exclude me from the debate?
NBC's decision is proof that our corporate media do not want a genuine debate over our impending war with Iran. During the last debate I was the only one to aggressively confront Senator Clinton over her vote to label the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. Had I not brought up the subject, seasoned NBC commentator Tim Russert, the moderator of the Sept. 26 debate, would not have even asked about it.
Most Americans still don't appreciate the gravity of that vote and they don't understand that our government is intentionally raising roadblocks to diplomacy. Corporate media have once again failed to investigate how Bush and a compliant congress have set us on the warpath. Instead the media simply parrots the demonization of Iranian President Ahmadinejad and the administration's unproven accusations against Iran. NBC and the other corporate media have jumped on the war bandwagon and they are determined to shut up anyone who tries to stop it.
The fact that NBC is owned by General Electric, one of the world's leading military contractors, is frightening and certainly smacks of censorship directed at the most outspoken critic of the influence that the military-industrial complex holds over this great nation. In the past decade, GE has benefited financially from the global war on terrorism and currently holds almost $2 billion in military contracts.
So I ask that anyone, who is as concerned as I am about the power of the mainstream media and the military-industrial complex, speak out in support of my campaign today. And, even if you support another candidate, surely you understand the implications of NBC's decision for our democracy and the future peace and security of our nation.
And since the powers that be now require that I raise $1 million in order to participate in the debates, please make a donation to my campaign. Unlike my fellow candidates, I am not focused on raising million of dollars; I am focused on fixing representative government. Help us reach that arbitrary threshold, and I will continue to fight for democracy and peace.
Senator Mike Gravel
Sunday, October 21, 2007
A stock criticism of Anarchism is that it's just too damn Utopian, a romantic fairytale for academics, a whimsical land of Oz located somewhere between Haight-Ashbury and Sesame Street. But these charges of Anarchism's impracticality fall apart when one examines the nuts and bolts of the Spanish Anarchist Collectives. It's no secret that good ideas are hard to suffocate, and this idea had been blossoming in the minds of Spanish workers for decades, one of self-management and self-governance. It wasn't difficult to look at their environment and imagine how there could be a better world. Property ownership was the only way to gain access to the means of life, and with 67% of the land in the hands of 2% of the population peasant farmers had to labor under the wealthy landowners to survive. In those days, the men who held the deeds made the rules. But the people taught themselves about the transformative potential of solidarity, and acknowledged their ability to create equality through their own collective power. From here the Spanish Anarchists produced a functional bottom up society whose ghost plutocrats worldwide still must confront.
In the 1930s, Spain was begging for revolution. A third of the country's workforce, or about 1 million people, suffered from unemployment. With a primarily agrarian economy, barring Catalonia which was the only region that had successfully industrialized, growth had screeched to a halt. Because of the wide sustenance gap, starvation became prevalent amongst the peasants. While the lower classes went without food the Catholic Church retained an indefensible 30% of the total wealth of Spain and colluded with the big landowners by charming its patrons with fantastic stories of supernatural visions as to exaggerate its relevance in people's lives and ensure their obedience. The working class found no relief from their recently created Republican government, who promised to redistribute the country's wealth but wouldn't be able to fully enact this reform in under a century. Government, industry and the Church failed the Spaniards.
Harsh crackdowns on dissent followed the formation of the Republican government. A collection of organized workers called the CNT actively opposed the cruelty of the bourgeois, and were massacred as a result. During the next election, the CNT and its socialist ally, the UGT, boycotted the polls. They no longer wanted to elect an autocrat derived from a shallow pool of candidates who would decide the best way of exploiting their class. Instead, they held strikes across the country, demonstrating in every major city and converting new members en mass. As a response, a rebel group of fascists helmed by Franco promised to crush the worker's resistance. This would be the beginning of the revolution.
Franco's fascist rebellion was pushed back in many parts of Spain by workers who took over the means of production and collectivized the land. There were even reports of soldiers deserting the Republican Army and joining their fellow workers in the revolution. But all the bloodshed would have been meaningless if there wasn't a new model that could replace the old. This moment was what mattered most about the Spanish Revolution.
All remnants of hierarchy were dispensed with. In this world, there were no bosses to be obeyed or gods to be worshiped. The workers decided everything through frequent assemblies where they discussed and voted on issues. Everything was shared and distributed equitably. No longer were people forced into degrading arrangements with masters due to fear of unemployment. There were no homeless on the streets. Words that signified authority like "Sir" were replaced with "Comrade" and tips in restaurants were banished. Area churches were gutted and replaced with schools, beauty parlors and movie theaters which were free to everybody even non-Anarchists.
The new worker-managed workplaces were called syndicates, and innovated better than when they were under Capitalist control. Bakeries which suffered from rodent infestations and disease were updated and improved under the workers' guidance. Dilapidated bridges, canals and roads were fixed and developed by combining the resources of each member of a Collective. Farm Collectives grew oranges by cleaning the soil themselves, while under the old rule a chemical fertilizer was added to the earth reducing the quality of the harvest. Potatoes were also planted in the shade of the orange orchards, an idea the previous landowners never allowed. Because the workers were no longer encumbered by the effects of wage slavery and the specter of starvation they were able to increase the quality of their yields and products without the incentive of competition.
This is not to say everybody got along. There were those who didn't want to be apart of a Collective. In many areas up to 30% rejected Anarchism and kept their private property. Did the unions coerce these individuals into accepting their philosophy? Of course not, that would run counter to what Anarchy stands for. In fact, there are examples of the Anarchist Collectives offering these people the best land in the region just so the Anarchists could consolidate their land and leave non-Anarchists free from their influence. At times, members of a syndicate didn't want to share the products of their labor with other members of the Collective. Disagreements like these were aired at assembly meetings. Here, the majority did not impose their will on the minority but utilized persuasive debate. Typically, the worker who refused to share was reminded of how the former bosses also refused to share their property, and created unemployment and poverty. This memory most likely hadn't lost its sting for the worker who lived day to day under hideous conditions. Usually, he or she would have been convinced to share with the rest of the Collective.
A popular battle cry of the Anarchist militia was: "Stand fast and fight to the last". And that's what many of them did for as long as they could. But supplies ran low due to the Communist's fear of empowering the Anarchists, and Franco's Rebel Army had intensified. Eventually, amid much protest from some of its members, the CNT was absorbed into the government which ultimately fell to Franco. But the defeat of the Anarchist Collectives was not a result of their Anarchist principles, it was due to their betrayal of them. The CNT and the other Spanish Anarchists should have refused arms from the Communists and decapitated the government while they had the chance. Fortunately, we inherit the optimism of that era. Buenaventura Durruti, a famous Anarchist militiaman, summarizes:
"We have always lived in slums and holes in the wall. We will know how to accommodate ourselves for a time. For, you must not forget, we can also build. It is we the workers who built these palaces and cities here in Spain and in America and everywhere. We, the workers, can build others to take their place. And better ones! We are not in the least afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the earth; there is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world here, in our hearts. That world is growing this minute." (source)
Saturday, October 20, 2007
Of course I don't agree with the suppression of free speech, but on Maher's show, if he wants to eject a few disruptive members then that's his prerogative. Besides, what do you want him to do, stop the show and discuss this bullshit issue? Sorry, folks, the world is a messy and complicated place and not everything can be explained through this type of specious reasoning.
By the way, this is what happened to building seven...
Friday, October 19, 2007
Activists send female underwear to Burmese embassies
Activists exasperated at the failure of diplomacy to apply pressure on Burma's military regime are resorting to a new means of protest against the regime's recent crackdown: sending female underwear to Burmese embassies.
Embassies in the UK, Thailand, Australia and Singapore have all been targeted by the "Panties for Peace" campaign, co-ordinated by an activist group based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
The manoeuvre is a calculated insult to the junta and its leader, General Than Shwe. Superstitious junta members believe that any contact with female undergarments - clean or dirty - will sap them of their power, said Jackie Pollack, a member of the Lanna Action for Burma Committee.
"Not only are they brutal, but they are also very superstitious. They believe that touching a woman's pants or sarong will make them lose their strength," Ms Pollack told Guardian Unlimited.
So far, hundreds of pairs of pants have been posted, according to another campaigner, Liz Hilton. "One group sent 140 pairs to the Burmese embassy in Geneva," she said.
The campaign was a serious attempt to allow ordinary women to express their outrage at the regime's response to democracy demonstrations led by Buddhist monks, Ms Pollack said.
"Condemnation by the United Nations and governments around the world have had no impact on the Burmese regime. This is a way of trying to reach them where they will feel it," she said.
"The junta is famous for its abuse of women: it is well documented that they use rape as a weapon of war against ethnic minorities. This is a way for women around the world to express their outrage."
The Burmese government has claimed that 10 people were killed and nearly 2,100 arrested, but dissident groups estimate that dozens or even hundreds died during the recent crackdown and its aftermath.
A message on the activists' website reads: "This is your chance to use your Panty Power to take away the power from the SPDC. You can post, deliver or fling your panties at the closest Burmese Embassy any day from today. Send early, send often."
An official at the Burmese Embassy in London was unable to confirm if any garments had yet been delivered.
Thursday, October 18, 2007
It was Howard Zinn who said we need to stop looking at reform movements in terms of their immediacy and start thinking of these undercurrents of change as slow, progressive thrusts forward which occur over generations. I like to think of them as building a medieval cathedral. During the middle ages, if a township wanted a place of worship they needed to plan ahead - far ahead - in fact, those who began construction did so knowing full well that neither they nor their children would live to see its completion.
Ideas such as American Exceptionalism and religiosity need to be delegitimized, but are so deeply seated that these dogmas seem to be encoded in our DNA. Yet, we've overcome such ingrained paradigms in the past. Monarchies and slavery existed for centuries until they were recognized as being dehumanizing and eventually shed like sheets of dead skin.
The problem I've been fencing with, however, is that of voting. I've voted ever since I turned 18 in 2000, and have participated in both local and national elections, but I've matured politically since then. The ideology which best describes my world view is libertarian socialism otherwise known as anarchism or anarcho-syndicalism. How can somebody exist in this society as an "anarchist" without being a hypocrite? I contend you can't. But if you hold anarchist sympathies, which I do, there are certain institutions you need to condemn namely Uncle Sam.
Voting has been described as public masturbation. We step into the booth, push the magic buttons and our ballot is spirited away. Afterward we feel satisfied (and a little guilty) but nothing seriously changed. But everywhere I turn people are telling me to vote, that my vote is my voice. No. My voice is my voice. However, the culture is seductive, and I can't say with any certainty that I won't vote again. We anarchists in training need to start a support group: Voters Anonymous. Fortunately, with Rudy and Hillary being the most likely candidates in 2008 I can't exactly hear the siren's song of "revolution" courting me anytime soon.
But if Nader runs, that'll be a different story. Just like a five-finger wankfest I might not be able to resist myself.
Given the changes that are unfolding in Tibet now, it's worth wondering whether the Dalai Lama really matters any more. Beijing announced earlier this year that it will have the final say on the naming of his reincarnation, and the idea of an atheist, authoritarian government holding final say in a religious matter elicited condemnation in the West. Meetings in July between his representatives and Chinese authorities aimed at improving dialogue between the two sides produced no concrete results. State-run Chinese news organs have given heavy play in recent days to stories claiming that the Dalai Lama is a supporter of the Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo and a betrayer of Buddhism. (source)
It is interesting to observe how the piece attacks the Dalai Lama (because that godless bastard has it coming!) and also raises its eyebrow toward Bush. The author glances at Bush, then at China then back to Bush again, and wonders why he would gamble with China as a business partner and regional carrot who acts as a counterweight to America's "big stick" for a meeting with a jolly little monk who doesn't even matter. As for Bush's motivations, I will leave that up to you. The article's intentions, however, are unambiguous.
The modernization of Tibet does not excuse the occupation of the country. And despite the Chinese government's best efforts to minimize the Dalai Lama's influence in Tibet the people still revere him, teaching their children about his involvement in their decades-long struggle and hiding illegal pictures of their spiritual leader in their homes. What is at work in the words of this writer is corporate-friendly gobbledegook. The government might be endangering international business making the Dalai Lama the business community's enemy of the day.
What the Dalai Lama represents, and the reason why he is still relevant, is the ability for the Tibetan people to consolidate their collective power and withstand the authority of China through nonviolent resistance and public demonstrations. China should fear the Dalai Lama, but Time shouldn't de-emphasize the liberating effects of compassion to maximize their bottom line.
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
Note to Obama and Edwards: Step-Up on Iran
by Mike Gravel
I’m glad to see John Edwards and Barack Obama have finally begun to upbraid Hillary Clinton for going along with Bush’s impending attack on Iran. We presidential candidates must keep raising this story because the mainstream media is not doing its job, once again. Two weeks ago, Seymour Hersh exposed the Pentagon’s plans to attack Iran, but the MSM failed to follow up with a sustained inquiry. We presidential candidates must pick up the slack and constantly alert the American public that Bush, Clinton and the go-along Congressional Dems are leading us into another disastrous war.
Despite what Hillary claims, Congress gave Bush the green light to attack Iran when they labeled the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG) a terrorist organization. Bush can now attack the IRG as a counter-terrorism measure. All he needs is a “Gulf of Tonkin incident” in Iraq that can be tied to the IRG, and he will begin bombing IRG facilities in Iran. Of course Bush will disregard Hillary’s resolution demanding he check with Congress before attacking Iran. No president since James Polk has felt the need to check with Congress before “defending” American troops.
What makes Hillary believe a congressional resolution will prevent Bush from doing anything? A war on Iran has been a neocon dream for decades and Bush sees himself as a modern-day messiah ridding the world of evil-doers. Throughout his presidency, Bush has consistently disregarded checks and balances. He defied a Supreme Court decision banning torture simply by ordering his Justice Department to secretly issue a go-ahead. (The MSM also dropped this story.)
After Bush launches the planned strikes on the IRG, Iran will hit our naval forces in the Persian Gulf and our troops in Iraq. Within an afternoon, we will be at war. Bush might later ask our rubberstamp Congress for a show of support. But by then any opposition will be moot. The Iranian navy will cut the oil supply of the European economies and a worldwide depression will hit American markets. Other regional powers, including Saudi Arabia and Israel, might be drawn into the war. Within weeks tens of thousands will be dead and that’s only the beginning.
We presidential candidates must do our best to avoid this tragedy by bringing it up constantly. And it’s not enough for my fellow candidates just to challenge Bush and Hillary out on the stump. They must join me in challenging her directly during the debates.
If we immediately and consistently inform the American public what their government is up to, I believe we have a shot at stopping this war. Without any sort of public outcry, we are most certainly heading for disaster.
–Senator Mike Gravel
Spoiler Alert: Hitchens loses.
Saturday, October 13, 2007
For months, perhaps even longer, the far right has been heralding the current economic "boom," and for once they're telling the truth. Unfortunately, you and I will never see the results. Only the caviar caste of society will pocket the benefits of our labor. Try to bypass these assholes as much as you can. Don't buy new products whenever possible. Shop at secondhand stores, trade goods and services with friends, family members and acquaintances, and, for the more radical, resist paying income taxes. Capitalism has been called the "socialism of the rich," it's time to stop paying for the biggest welfare parasites in the country and learn to sustain ourselves.
US Income Gap Widens, Richest Share Hits Record
by Karey Wutkowski
Washington - The gap between America’s richest and poorest is at its widest in at least 25 years, with the wealthiest taking home a record share of the nation’s income that exceeds even the previous high in 2000.
According to recent data from the Internal Revenue Service, the richest 1 percent of Americans earned 21.2 percent of all U.S. income earned in 2005. That is a significant increase from 2004 when the top 1 percent earned 19 percent of the nation’s income.
The previous high over the past 25 years, when such data were compiled, was in 2000 when a bull market brought the figure up to 20.81 percent.
The Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan tax research group based in Washington, said the wealthy benefited in 2005 from a healthy, growing economy and higher-than-average price inflation.
The IRS data included all of the 132.6 million tax returns filed in 2005 with a positive adjusted gross income, or AGI, also including people who did not earn enough to owe taxes.
AGI is a figure used to calculate an individual’s income tax liability and includes all gross income adjusted by certain allowed deductions, such as moving expenses, health savings account deductions, alimony paid and retirement contributions.
In 2005, 90.6 million people who filed tax returns paid taxes into the Treasury, and 42 million with a positive AGI used exemptions, deductions and tax credits to reduce their federal income tax liability to zero.
Democratic U.S. presidential candidates have raised the widening income gap as a campaign issue, proposing to raise taxes on wealthier Americans to pay for programs that would benefit lower-income families.
To make the top 1 percent of wealthiest Americans in 2005, a taxpayer had to earn at least $364,657. That figure is an increase from 2004, when the cut-off point stood at $328,049.
In 2005, the top 50 percent of American earners brought in 87.17 percent of the nation’s income, also an all-time high for the data available.
The previous high for that figure was also in 2000, when the richest 50 percent of Americans earned 87.01 percent of the income.
© 2007 Reuters
Income inequality worst since 1920s, according to IRS data
Half of US senators are millionaires
The superrich are gobbling up an ever larger piece of the economic pie, and the poor are seeing their share of earnings shrink: new IRS data shows the top 1 percent of Americans are claiming a larger share of national income than at any time since before the Great Depression.
The top percentile of wealthy Americans earned 21.2 percent of all income in 2005, up from 19 percent in 2004, according to new Internal Revenue Service data published in the Wall Street Journal Friday.
Americans in the bottom 50 percent of wage earners saw their share of income shrink to 12.8 percent in 2005, down from 13.4 percent.
"Scholars attribute rising inequality to several factors," the Journal reports, "including technological change that favors those with more skills, and globalization and advances in communications that enlarge the rewards available to 'superstar' performers whether in business, sports or entertainment."
The data could cause problems to President Bush and Republican presidential candidates, who have played up low unemployment and a strong economy since 2003, crediting Bush's tax cuts for contributing to both. In an interview with the Journal, Bush downplayed the significance of the income gap, saying more education is the answer to narrowing it.
"First of all, our society has had income inequality for a long time. Secondly, skills gaps yield income gaps," Bush told the Journal. "And what needs to be done about the inequality of income is to make sure people have got good education, starting with young kids. That's why No Child Left Behind is such an important component of making sure that America is competitive in the 21st century."
The Journal notes that many Americans fear the economy is entering a recession, and the IRS data show income for the median earner fell 2 percent between 2000 and 2005 to $30,881. Earnings for the top 1 percent grew to $364,657 -- a 3 percent uptick.
Scholarly research suggests that top earners did not have such a large share of total income since the 1920s, the Journal reported.
The Journal reports that a recent stock boom likely contributed to higher earnings among those in the top income bracket, with hedge fund managers and Wall Street attorneys seeing their incomes skyrocket in recent years.
Another prominent pool or wealthy Americans gathers regularly on Capitol Hill to write the nation's laws. The Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign spending and politicians' wealth, says more than a third of Congress members are millionaires, with at least half the Senate falling into the millionaires club.
Forbes reported that last year's incoming class of new Senators did "little to shake the Senate's image as a millionaires club," with half of the newly elected members having seven- eight- or nine-figure personal fortunes.
Freshman Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) is worth between $64 million and $236 million, and newly elected Sen. Claire McCaskill's (D-MO) fortune is between $13 million and $29 million. R
Roll Call estimates Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) is the chamber's richest member with an estimated net worth of $750 million; another Democrat, Wisconsin Sen. Herb Kohl, is among the chamber's richest with between $220 million and $234 million in personal assets.
Friday, October 12, 2007
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
For this news special, Al Jazeera’s Tony Birtley went undercover in Myanmar to report exclusively on the people’s protests and resulting bloody crackdown by Myanmar’s military government.
There's not too much I can add to the hype enveloping Radiohead's new LP so this'll be brief. Last night my brother and I had an In Rainbows listening party, and after a cursory listen I've got to say this is a merciful departure from the frusturating gray-ness of Hail to the Theif, implementing more snarling rock guitar and showcasing the majestic sweep of Yorke's voice. If a group even makes it to the 7th album their material is usually reheated and uninspiring, which was the downward sprial I was afraid Radiohead couldn't free itself from, but as this album proves the band has returned to the fold.
Be sure to "BUY" In Rainbows
Also, Pitchfork has a detailed "guide" to the new album.
Sunday, October 07, 2007
Rock Hard Review: "Red Zone Blues: A Snapshot of Baghdad During the Surge" by Pepe Escobar; Buried Alive
"Blues" is Mr. Escobar's first person account of how the "surge" reshaped Iraq and its neighboring countries. The increase in violence pushed anyone with a semblance of money or connections out of the country. They now float in limbo, waiting in Syria and Jordan until the killing subsides or until they elect to roll the dice and request admission to a Western country. This state of suspended animation is astutely portrayed by a description of an Iraqi mother escaping Baghdad:
"Only her eyelashes can be seen in profile, fluttering obsessively like the wings of a butterfly. She is like her own striking, svelte Kaaba, surrounded by an ocean of pilgrims -- full black elegantly draped chador over jeans and a discreet mauve pair of pointy shoes, full hijab, only the heavily kohl-rimmed eyelashes trying to decode the torn-down messages in Arabic script and then the official's request for a pile of abstruse documents. Inevitably she has to sit down, like everyone else, in the antechamber of purgatory -- the cramped, dingy room of the consular section of the Iraqi Embassy in Damascus."
In these extreme conditions skilled technicians are reduced to selling baked goods, earning less than the cost of living for their families. "Little Fallujahs" and "Little Baghdads" follow the refugees to their new homesteads, weak echoes of their homeland.
Much of "Blues" centers around Baghdad and its American made "gulag", Pentagon-mandated walls inside the city. These gated communities were intended for privileged buyers and defy the will of the Iraqis who unambiguously opposed its construction. The idea of divide and control through artificial barriers is a motif Mr. Escobar frequently touches upon.
The most secure area of Baghdad is known as the "Green Zone" and the unsecured segments of the city, everywhere else, has been labeled the "Red Zone". When observing what goes on inside the former it is easy to understand why the latter is a mess. It is from inside the Green Zone where the Iraqis lost control of their oil fields which were privatized, not nationalized as the Iraqis desired. This type of crude strategizing -- forgive the pun -- only serves to roil the tension in the air.
Yet, this tension isn't a recent creation. It has been bubbling beneath the surface throughout the 1990s with the "Sanctions Generation". The average annual income nosedived as a result of U.N. sanctions effectively annihilating the middle class. Only Saddam Hussein and his sycophants retained the lion's share of Iraqi wealth while traditionally high wage earning professions like physicians struggled to survive. People jockeyed to charm the governing coterie to feed their families. Children would try to befriend classmates who belonged to the powerful clique so their parents could eat. As ruinous as the sanctions were on the Iraqi population they successfully partitioned and stratified the society into an American wet dream.
Remarkably, throughout this dark period there was no sectarian rivalry. One of Mr. Escobar's primary strengths is his doctorly dissection of the motivation behind the violence in Iraq. He presents the various tribes without the expected sterility that would typically accompany such a litany. To say Shiites are seeking revenge against the Sunnis is an oversimplification. For example, some of the more promising news from Iraq is how Sheikh Abu Risha, a Sunni tribal leader, joined forces with the Iraqi government, largely Shiite, to combat Salafi-jihadists. Also, Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army in Sadr City favors national unity, reviles Iranian power grabs and finds no comfort in an extended American presence. Muqtada al-Sadr's opinions are held by the majority of Iraqis, regardless of tribal or party affiliation, making him one of the most popular public figures in the region. Can't exactly wedge that into a 15 second sound bite, can you?
It all comes down to walls. In the preface, the author quotes a passage from Poe's Masque of the Red Death, a Gothic short story describing a man being buried alive, which proves to be worrisomely pertinent. Be it draconian sanctions blocking citizens from their wealth or an American satellite regime denying Iraqis a political voice or even literal barriers fortified without irony in "strategic" areas, our intentions are clear. We will keep cordoning off Iraq brick by brick until the country is fully entombed.
"Red Zone Blues: A Snapshot of Baghdad During the Surge" by Pepe Escobar
Friday, October 05, 2007
Wednesday, October 03, 2007
What does the Bush administration really think about the military junta in Myanmar? Publicly, it condemns the government's actions but privately I suspect our handlers are moving us closer toward a military junta of our own. In Myanmar the internet is strictly monitored going as far as taking screen captures inside internet cafes every five minutes, the rulers live lavishly while the poor is largely ignored and a substantial portion of their income is devoted to a massive standing army. The parallels are frightening.
If this administration was serious about promoting Burmese democracy they wouldn't sanction the brutal regime. We've learned from Iraq that sanctions effect the people, not the government. We need to fund the pro-democracy resistance by providing proxy servers to help organize the counter-movement and by smuggling aid into the country.
Soldiers Hunt Dissidents in Myanmar
YANGON, Myanmar — Soldiers announced that they were hunting pro-democracy protesters in Myanmar’s largest city Wednesday and the top U.S. diplomat in the country said military police were pulling people out of their homes during the night.
Military vehicles patrolled the streets before dawn with loudspeakers blaring that: “We have photographs. We are going to make arrests!”
Shari Villarosa, the acting U.S. ambassador in Myanmar, said in a telephone interview that people in Yangon were terrified.
“From what we understand, military police … are traveling around the city in the middle of the night, going into homes and picking up people,” she said.
Residents living near the Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar’s most revered shrine and a flashpoint of unrest, reported that police swept through several dozen homes in the middle of the night, dragging away several men for questioning. The homes were located above shops at a marketplace that caters to the nearby pagoda, selling monks robes and begging bowls.
Meanwhile, the junta pursued other means of intimidation. An employee from the Ministry of Transport, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that he was told to sign a statement saying he and his family would not take part in any political activity and would not listen to foreign radio reports. Many in Myanmar use short-wave radios to pick up foreign English-language stations - a main source for news about their tightly controlled country.
The U.N.’s special envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, declined to comment on his four-day mission to Myanmar, where the military junta last month crushed mass pro-democracy demonstrations led by the nation’s revered Buddhist monks.
Villarosa said embassy staff had gone to some monasteries in recent days and found them completely empty. Others were barricaded by the military and declared off-limits to outsiders.
“There is a significantly reduced number of monks on the streets. Where are the monks? What has happened to them?” she said. The Democratic Voice of Burma, a dissident radio station based in Norway, said authorities have released 90 of 400 monks detained in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin state, during a midnight raid on monasteries on Sept. 25.
A semblance of normality returned to Yangon after daybreak, with some shops opening and light traffic on roads.
However, “people are terrified, and the underlying forces of discontent have not been addressed,” Villarosa said. “People have been unhappy for a long time … Since the events of last week, there’s now the unhappiness combined with anger, and fear.”
Some people remained hopeful that democracy would come.
“I don’t believe the protests have been totally crushed,” said Kin, a 29-year-old language teacher in Yangon, whose father and brother had joined a 1988 pro-democracy movement that ended in a crackdown in which at least 3,000 people were killed.
“There is hope, but we fear to hope,” she said. “We still dream of rearing our children in a country where everybody would have equal chances at opportunities.”
The military has ruled Myanmar since 1962, and the current junta came to power after snuffing out the 1988 pro-democracy movement. The generals called elections in 1990 but refused to give up power when Suu Kyi’s party won.
The military crushed the protests on Sept. 26 and 27 with live ammunition, tear gas and beatings. Hundreds of monks and civilians were carted off to detention camps. The government says 10 people were killed in the violence. But dissident groups put the death toll at up to 200 and say 6,000 people were detained.
Among those killed was Japanese television cameraman Kenji Nagai of the APF news agency. His body was flown from Myanmar to Tokyo on Wednesday.
Gambari went to Myanmar on Saturday to convey the international community’s outrage at the junta’s actions. He also hoped to persuade the junta to take the people’s aspirations seriously.
He met junta leader Senior Gen. Than Shwe and his deputies and talked to detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi twice.
Gambari avoided the media in Singapore, where he arrived Tuesday night en route to New York. He was not expected to issue any statement before briefing U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Friday.
The junta has not commented on Gambari’s visit and the United Nations has only released photos of Gambari and a somber, haggard-looking Suu Kyi - who has spent nearly 12 of the last 18 years under house arrest - shaking hands during their meeting in a state guest house in Yangon.
In Singapore, Gambari met with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations bloc of which Myanmar is a member.
A Singapore government statement said Lee told Gambari that ASEAN “is fully behind his mission” to bring about “a political solution for national reconciliation and a peaceful transition to democracy.”
© 2007 The Associated Press
Monday, October 01, 2007
Bolivia’s Evo Morales Wins Hearts and Minds in US
by Deborah James and Medea Benjamin
While Iranian President Ahmedinejad stole the headlines during the United Nations meeting last week in New York, Bolivia’s President Evo Morales - a humble coca farmer, former llama herder and union organizer - stole the hearts of the American people. At public events and media appearances, Bolivia’s first-ever indigenous president reached out to the American people to dialogue directly on issues of democracy, environmental sustainability, and social and economic justice.
Morales appeared at a public event packed with representatives of New York’s Latino, labor, and other communities, speaking for 90 minutes - without notes - about how he came to power, and about his government’s efforts to de-colonize the nation, the poorest in South America. At first, he said, community organizations did not want to enter the cesspool of politics. But they realized that if they wanted the government to act in the interest of the poor Indigenous majority, they were going to have to make alliances with other social movements, win political representation democratically, and then transform the government.
Now having been elected to office, they have a clear mandate based on the urgent needs of the majority: to organize a Constitutional Assembly to rewrite the Constitution (controversial with the traditional elites, but well on its way), engage in a comprehensive program of land reform and decriminalize the production of coca for domestic use (in progress), and reclaim control over the oil and gas industries (mission accomplished.)
While other heads of state were meeting with bankers and billionaires, Morales asked his staff to set up a meeting with U.S. grassroots leaders so he could learn about our struggles and how we could work together. The meeting included high-ranking labor leaders, immigrant organizers, Indigenous leaders, peace activists and environmentalists. “I’ve lived in New York during a lot of UN meetings, and I’ve never seen a president reach out to the labor community like Evo did today,” remarked Ed Ott, Executive Director of the New York City Central Labor Council.
The President listened patiently while U.S. organizers talked about efforts to stop the war in Iraq, injustices in the prison system, organizing efforts of low-wage immigrant workers, struggles for Indigenous rights and the difficulties of getting the Bush administration to seriously address the crisis of climate change. “For a farmer to become President, that is a dream come true!” commented Niel Ritchie, president of the League of Rural Voters. “Listening to President Morales, it’s so easy to see how our current trade model has wreaked havoc on farmers in the U.S. as well as in Bolivia.”
His most widespread outreach, however, was on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, who also seemed captivated by this Indigenous farmer-turned-president. Speaking through an interpreter, Morales told millions of Americans how his government’s policies have brought hundreds of millions of dollars for the nation’s poor - that would have gone to foreign corporate coffers - through the nationalization of oil and gas. Revenues from hydrocarbons, mostly natural gas, have increased from $440 million in 2004 to over $1.5 billion in 2006 - a significant amount in Bolivia’s economy, as it is an increase from 5 percent of GDP to over 13 percent of GDP. This year revenues will likely top $2 billion, he said. With a twinkle in his eye as he made a measured critique of the Bush administration’s policies, he said that in this new century, armies should save lives through humanitarian aid, not take lives.
Throughout Morales’ media appearances (including a lengthy segment on Democracy Now!), official speeches at the United Nations, and public meetings, he focused on three main points. The most salient was on the urgency of the need for comprehensive solutions to climate change while simultaneously improving the lives of the poor. “We have to be honest about the causes of this global warming. Overconsumption in the developed countries. Overpollution in the developed countries.” At the same time, he argued that the poor still need more access to energy: “Just like we fought to make water a human right, we need an international campaign to make access to energy a human right.”
These sentiments resonated with Brent Blackwelder, President of Friends of the Earth US, who participated in the meeting with Morales. “We need to find solutions that will reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the countries of the global north, while fighting for clean energy and poverty reduction in the global south.” Van Jones, Founder of Green for All agreed. “We’re fighting for social justice and climate solutions within the U.S., and we can join forces with and learn from our allies, like President Morales, with the same vision globally.”
Morales also emphasized the importance of the struggle for the right to life, which in Bolivia refers to the fight against corporate globalization and for access to water, food, education, and health care. Specifically, before Morales was elected, Bolivia suffered tremendously under two decades of programs of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, including the privatizations of water services and the hydrocarbon industry. Bolivia has now had much of its debt cancelled and is no longer bound by an IMF agreement, thanks to the anti-debt movement and a lot of help from Venezuela.
Although Bolivia is rich in natural resources, the Indigenous majority has rarely benefited from their exploitation, and the country remains vastly unequal and majority poor. The Bolivian government’s efforts to ensure a more fair distribution of the natural resource wealth has resulted in their being sued by foreign multinational corporations for “future expected profits” from their investments.
Under international trade and investment agreements, these cases are adjudicated - not in Bolivian national courts, as would be the case for national companies - but through the World Bank’s International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes, ICSID. (This is similar to the “rights” given to foreign investors to sue sovereign governments in bilateral and regional trade agreements, called “Chapter 11″ investor-to-state provisions in the North American Free Trade Agreement.) ICSID does not have the transparency, checks and balances, or openness of a real judicial system, yet its findings are binding.
This past May, the Bolivian government announced it would withdraw from ICSID. Although most Americans are unaware of ICSID, it is regularly used by U.S. and European corporations to counter efforts by developing countries to re-nationalize natural resources and the provision of public services like water, according to a major report by the Institute for Policy Studies and Food and Water Watch. During his talks, Morales called on the international community to support their efforts for “an ongoing global campaign against this type of investor rule.”
The third point highlighted by Morales relates to bilateral relations with the United States. The U.S. government, through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) currently operates an Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) in Bolivia. (OTI offices are usually designed to help enable Washington-favored regime change; the only other one in Latin America is in Venezuela.) The Bolivian government has accused the United States of using USAID money to build opposition to the new government and its political party, the MAS, something the U.S. had done in the past. According to the Associated Press, “A declassified 2002 cable from the U.S. Embassy in La Paz described a USAID-sponsored ‘political party reform project’ to ‘help build moderate, pro-democracy political parties that can serve as a counterweight to the radical MAS or its successors.’”
But Evo’s main argument was regarding the former president, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, commonly known as Goni. During the “gas wars” of 2003, troops fired on protesters, killing 67 and wounding over 300 people. Days later, Goni abdicated the presidency and flew to Washington, DC, where he now resides. The Bolivian Supreme Court is seeking extradition of Goni, and two of his former ministers, not for revenge, according to Evo, but “so that they can be held accountable for their crimes by standing trial in Bolivia.”
While it seems unlikely that the United States would consent to the extradition, considering their lack of cooperation with the Venezuelan government’s request for the extradition of terrorist Luis Posada Carriles, the recent agreement of the Chilean government to extradite former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori to face trial in Peru does set a precedent that will be hard for the United States to ignore. The Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns has worked to educate the public about this issue, and the Center for Constitutional Rights just announced a new major lawsuit against Goni and former Minister of Defense Jose Carlos Sánchez Berzaín for compensatory and punitive damages under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) and the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA) on behalf of families of the victims.
After decades of politicians who robbed the country’s coffers and left the people in poverty and despair, Bolivia now has a leader who is known to be honest, sincere and trustworthy. Bolivia also has a leader who inspires hope in the Indigenous population. This hope is now embodied, worldwide, in the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a brand-new declaration approved in the United Nations this September, after a 25-year struggle. At the grassroots meeting with Morales, Tonya Gonella Frichner, President and Founder of the American Indian Law Alliance, highlighted Bolivia’s helpful role in the passage of the declaration, and both she and Morales agreed that “the next step is ensuring that the declaration is implemented.”
Morales, anxious to apply Indigenous wisdom to solve the global climate crisis, is calling for the United Nations to convene a world indigenous forum to “foster a new approach to economic relations based on an appreciation of natural resources and not their exploitation.”
The world has much to learn from the sustainable lifestyles of Indigenous people and from the grassroots movement that has come to power in Bolivia. At a time when our planet is crying out for leadership with vision and integrity, Evo Morales and the Bolivian example should give hope to us all.
Deborah James is the Director of International Programs at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Medea Benjamin is a Co-Founder of Global Exchange and CodePink: Women for Peace.